/ 8 February 2008

Who you calling bitch, ho?

A new film pushes stars to justify the genre's violence and misogyny.

The teenage boy has just been asked how he feels about women being called ‘bitches and hos” by hip-hop artists. ‘You gotta understand,” he tells the interviewer, looking towards a group of scantily clad young women, ‘some women are bitches and hos.”

This clip is from an eye-opening documentary about hip-hop called Beyond Beats and Rhymes, which aims to expose the dark side of the genre: the sexism, violence and homophobia of much of its lyrics and videos, and many of its stars. When I saw the film, by Byron Hurt, at a feminist conference in Boston, I feared a worthy but dull diatribe, but I was in for a pleasant surprise. As soon as the soundtrack began, a heavy, jazzy number by Philadelphia-based band the Roots, the audience was gripped.

As a fan of hip-hop and a radical feminist myself, I found the film a treat. Woven into a vibrant soundtrack are interviews with big-name rappers such as Mos Def, Fat Joe, Chuck D, Jadakiss and Busta Rhymes, who are pressed to answer difficult questions about the violent and sexually explicit content of many songs and videos; they neither excuse nor denounce the genre, pointing out that it is part of a free culture. These are juxtaposed with the thoughts of people in the street, and with those of African-American writers, commentators and political activists, who — while being careful not to attack the whole genre and its importance to black culture — do maintain that its excesses are far from harmless, and that things like lyrics matter.

Hip-hop has never been bigger. Hip-hop studies is a rapidly growing subject at colleges and universities in the United States. There are more than 300 classes on offer, with new books appearing regularly. Curiously, more and more young women are identifying themselves as ‘hip-hop feminists”. This may sound contradictory, but hip-hop was, in the beginning, also a political movement, allowing disenfranchised people — initially black men from the Bronx — to speak out against oppression.

‘What I am trying to do is to get us men to take a good look at ourselves,” says Hurt. He aims to get people thinking about the ways in which men learn to exploit and disrespect women, and how to change things for the better. ‘In the US, lots of young men involved in the rap and hip-hop world have learned from [the film], as well as fans.”

Growing up listening to hip-hop artists such as the Jungle Brothers, Big Daddy Kane and De La Soul, Hurt believes there is nothing inherently negative about hip-hop; it is simply reflecting the misogynistic culture the artists and fans grow up in. ‘You have to be strong, tough, have a lot of girls, money, and be in control,” says Hurt. ‘Otherwise you are called soft, or a faggot, and nobody wants to be called those things.”

Hurt made his first film in 1993 while still a student on a journalism course. Moving Memories, his own reflections on being an African­American among white students, gave him the confidence to become a professional filmmaker. What inspired him to make Beyond Beats and Rhymes? ‘I realised that the dominant messages in much hip-hop are about men being in control, being disrespectful to women, and throwing their guns and money around while posing with their flash cars. So many of us simply consume the images and lyrics of this music without thinking about what it all means.”

Marcos Brito — stage name QBoy — is the United Kingdom’s only out gay rap and hip-hop artist. For him, the strength of Hurt’s film is the fact that it is as much a celebration of what is good about hip-hop, and its potential to elicit positive change, as it is a critique. ‘In recent years, the influence of gangsta rap in commercial music has been so great that mainstream audiences consider it to be and mean the same as hip-hop,” says Brito. ‘They equate the music and nature of hip-hop with gun crime, homophobia and misogyny. Hip-hop has so much more to offer.”

But does it? Take this all-too typical line from West Coast hip-hop pioneer Too Short: ‘Now take my bitch/ She won’t complain about shit/ It ain’t hard to tell she belongs to me/ I pimped her 15 years in this industry.” And few who saw it will forget Snoop Dogg showing up at the MTV awards in 2003 with two women in dog collars and leashes. It’s hard to say that he was being endearing to these women, says Hurt.

Has Hurt had any negative feedback for criticising hip-hop and drawing attention to its misogyny? ‘I have been criticised by a few people who did not understand what I was doing with the film and why, but overwhelmingly it has been praised.” Indeed, Hurt found that lots of men he thought would be uncomfortable watching the film were in fact moved by it.

In one striking moment, a female hip-hop artist reveals that she feels as if she is ‘in recovery from hip-hop” and likens being immersed in this culture to domestic violence. ‘One minute we’re killing each other, the next we’re killing hos,” says another artist. ‘We are doing everything wrong.” —